Start Saving Vegetable Seeds Now

A ripe heirloom squash is cut, revealing seeds and pulp inside.

How did farmers and gardeners obtain vegetable seeds before companies sold them? They let a portion of their strongest looking plants go to seed so they could collect, dry, store, and re-use their own from one growing season to the next. Often they would swap seeds with neighbors and together blend seeds of the same plant variety to ensure the vigor that comes from genetic diversity within a species.

Today, seed saving and swapping are making a big comeback, and urban neighborhoods like Capitol Hill are not only well suited for this activity, they may be perfect for it. Why? And why does this matter now? First, some background.

Losing Edible Plant Diversity

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), “75% of all agriculture crops grown in the last century have disappeared.” The FAO also says that today, large farms grow only 12 crops, and of these, we primarily eat only four: potatoes, rice, corn, and wheat. You’ll notice that despite all the publicity it receives, kale is not on this short list. (see: http://www.upworthy.com/100-years-ago-people-were-eating-things-that-most-of-us-will-never-taste-so-what-happened?g=2&c=ufb3)

Most of the four crops most Americans eat are grown from genetically modified and patented seed. Much of this seed is engineered so that plants they produce are immune to weed-killing herbicides like glyphosate, commonly called Roundup® by Monsanto, its manufacturer. Farmers simply apply the herbicide and plant the seeds with one machine at the same time. I’ve seen a seven acre corn field take 30 minutes to spray and plant.

Because these seeds are patented (by the same company that makes the herbicide), it’s illegal to harvest and plant second generation seeds, meaning farmers must purchase new seeds every time they replant. The US Supreme Court has ruled for Monsanto in this regard.

Plants, like people, are adaptable. Lately, weeds in Roundup® ready crops have become less affected by the herbicide, resulting in weedy fields with reduced yields. Chemical companies have responded by proposing stronger herbicide ready seeds made with both Roundup® and a previously approved herbicide called 2,4-D produced by Dow AgroBusiness. The new cocktail is commercially known as Enlist Duo. Here’s an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fact sheet on it: http://www2.epa.gov/ingredients-used-pesticide-products/registration-enlist-duo.

Since the EPA approved it last year, Enlist Duo will soon be widely used. The product 2,4-D is half of the ingredient used as the Viet Nam era defoliant called Agent Orange. Because it has been linked with dioxin, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), has concluded that glyphosate and 2,4-D are “probably carcinogenic,” according to a June 2015 article in Chemistry World (http://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/2015/06/epa-under-pressure-over-enlist-duo-herbicide. Capitol Hill’s Center for Food Safety located at 660 Pennsylvania Avenue, SE, has more information (www.centerforfoodsafety.org). Read up on this yourself and reach your own conclusions.

The Case for Seed Saving

Home gardeners growing edibles from seeds they and their neighbors collect will save money. Hybrid seeds can cost more than heirloom seeds. And we want to only collect seed from heirloom plants as these will be true to form from one year to the next, unlike hybridized plants. Saving seed from heirloom plants not only preserves genetic diversity, it improves pest resistance over time by selecting from plants best adapted to local conditions. Finally, growing from seed you or your neighbors saved enables you to avoid genetically engineered foods and empowers individuals and communities. See The Lexicon of Food, https://www.lexiconoffood.com/thefoodlist/seeds for more on how seed saving strengthens communities.

Why Save Seeds in Tiny Capitol Hill Gardens?

You might assume that suburban or rural farms are best for seed collecting, but city conditions offer some surprising advantages. In areas where more crops are grown, including GMO crops, pollen from various varieties can mix with heirloom plants growing in your garden. In cities it’s easier to keep your plants at a distance from those of others, as there are no GMO fields nearby. Isolation is good in this case.

The local Seed Keeper Collective includes seeds from Three Part Harmony Farm, a two-acre Brookland organic urban farm run by Gail Taylor. Gail typically contributes heirloom corn seed to the collective since there are no nearby GMO fields. You can visit the farm on October 17 for their annual Fall Festival, with garlic planting from 10-noon, a potluck and live music and art from 1-4pm: www.threepartharmonyfarm.org.

If you and some friends on the Hill all grew the same kind of heirloom tomato, you could each save the seeds from one healthy plant, then mix them together to increase genetic diversity. This can easily be done with peppers, cucumbers, squash, melons, lettuce, peas, and beans as they are self-pollinating. Then in January, you might all gather at a place like the Hill Center for a potluck and seed swap, just in time to get your indoor seedlings started. The human and plant cycle of life is reinforced in this way.

How it Works

What does it mean to let something “go to seed”? While we plant vegetables to eat their fruit, they think they exist to reproduce and thus produce seed. If you stop picking peas, beans, cucumbers, or whatever, the plant will start producing seeds. So harvest what you like during the growing season, identify the plant or plants appearing most healthy, and let them go.

If you’re harvesting pepper seeds, allow any green peppers to turn red so interior seeds fully ripen. Then cut open the pepper and scoop out the seeds and air-dry them on a plate for a week or two. Let beans stay on the vine and dry in place until you hear them rattle around inside their pods. Seeds for squash and melons are fully developed when the fruit is ripe, so pick them, scoop out, wash, and air dry the seeds.

According to The Adventurous Gardener by Nancy Wilkes Bubel, a 1979 favorite of mine, “the two enemies of [seed] viability are moisture and heat.” Bubel says ventilation but not artificial heat is best for drying seeds. Labeling is important too. For this you may enjoy the seed keeper kit available from www.seedkeepercompany.com. When you’re ready, place your packed and labeled seeds in a cool dry place, ideally ten degrees above freezing. Done this way, your seeds may last for years. A web site called www.howtosaveseeds.com offers plainspoken advice in The Seed Saving Handbook, available at no cost.

Additional Training

DC’s Department of Parks and Recreation hosted a workshop on seed saving in August at the Deanwood Recreation Center in northeast DC. Members of DC’s Ecohermanas (http://www.ecohermanas.org) and the Seed Keeper Collective led the workshop which focused on cultural history and hands-on seed saving techniques. The Urban Gardens Programs and the number of community gardens and greenhouses sponsored by DC Parks and Recreation have exploded. Dozens of free programs run from May through September. Plan for next year and see http://dpr.dc.gov/service/urban-gardens-programs. An eight week urban gardening training program for adults called The Green Corps is available through Washington Parks and People: http://www.washingtonparks.net/green_corps_application. Other programs are listed under Community Harvest: http://www.washingtonparks.net/harvest_resources.

Global seed sovereignty advocate Dr. Vandana Shiva talks about “growers’ rights to breed and exchange diverse open source seeds which can be saved and which are not patented, or genetically modified.” It’s time we broaden our growing appreciation of edible gardening to include the power and beauty of seeds.

Use a spoon to scoop seeds onto a plate.
Separate pulp from seeds using a strainer.
Dry seeds on a plate for a few weeks.
Seeds are beautiful and contain everything a plant needs to grow.

Cheryl Corson grew up in Brooklyn, New York, believing carrots grew on trees. Today she is a licensed landscape architect and gardener practicing on Capitol Hill and beyond. For design assistance see www.cherylcorson.com.


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